The 50 best albums of 2022: No 3 – The Weeknd: Dawn FM
Abel Tesfaye’s luridly spectacular album continued his trangressive and dazzlingly deranged themes with gorgeous, grand music voiced by his depressive alter ego
Dawn FM is the Dom Pérignon of male manipulator music – a slick of negging and neediness, sleaze and sanctimony that carries the unnatural, alluring glow of toxic waste. Released without fanfare in the first week of the year and still as luridly spectacular 11 months later, the Weeknd’s fifth album – eighth if you count his superlative and still-astounding 2011 mixtape trilogy – is also his most dazzlingly deranged, and a high watermark for any star seeking to inflict their own vision on mainstream, stadium-primed pop music.
Dawn FM serves as the midway point in a trilogy of concept albums that began with 2020’s After Hours, and which will supposedly end with an album about the afterlife. But it also feels like a direct reaction to After Hours’ success. That record allowed Abel Tesfaye to showcase some of his most nakedly transgressive art for increasingly huge audiences. In its music videos, he depicted himself battered and bruised, his teeth caked with blood; he attended awards ceremonies in full facial bandages and occasionally appeared in caricaturish prosthetics. The aesthetic leaned obscurist, drawing liberally from the relatively obscure 80s Scorsese comedy After Hours and the suffocating atmospherics of cult synth-pop band Chromatics.
And yet After Hours was a colossal hit. It produced two of the Weeknd’s most commercially successful singles (Blinding Lights, one of the biggest songs of all time, and Save Your Tears) and he ended that album cycle headlining the Super Bowl halftime show, broadcasting a disorienting, somewhat disturbing vision to more than 90 million people: hundreds of eerie Weeknd clones, all dressed in Tesfaye’s bloodied facial bandages, frantically careening through mirrored halls during a hit that likens romance to cocaine addiction and doing eerie military marches to a Siouxsie and the Banshees sample. Tesfaye had taken his populist nihilism to the largest stage possible – with little sense of compromise.
So once you’ve conquered the mortal pop world, naturally, it’s time to conquer death itself. Dawn FM is a concept album about Tesfaye’s Weeknd character – a misanthropic, sometimes outright misogynistic, cocaine-addled, depressive loner – transiting through purgatory. Dawn FM is the radio station you’re listening to on the journey: a hallucinatory vortex of disco, R&B, electro, EDM and hip-hop that’s shimmery and strange, taking on new dimensions the longer you listen. Jim Carrey narrates the whole thing, and Quincy Jones and Josh Safdie dip in for spoken-word interludes; at one point, Tesfaye recites Rilke. The music is gorgeous and grand, but the concept is, to put it plainly, bonked – the kind of dense, deliriously conceived framework that you can only pull off if you’ve spent the previous decade doing some of pop music’s most meticulous, coherent worldbuilding.